SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 10, 2019 - 12:00am

Common poster areas?

By now you must be choking on campaign posters and streamers displayed everywhere – on trees, lampposts, walls – even in the city of Manila, where the head office of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is located.

Considering that the Comelec is supposed to have an office in every major city and most towns, you wonder what the poll personnel are doing to enforce election rules.

If they can’t enforce their own rules on designated poster areas, when all the illegal campaign materials are staring them in the face everywhere they turn, they need a career change. Or else they need to face administrative charges for looking the other way in the face of blatant violations of the rules of their agency.

Let people see, even once, that they can get away with flouting the rules and breaking the law, and it’s guaranteed to lead to a repeat offense.

Now consider rules on campaign materials being ignored all over the country, with incumbent national officials leading the offenders, and the disregard is sure to cascade all the way down to the races for minor local positions.

And if candidates can brazenly ignore such basic rules, what’s to make them think they can’t get away with more serious violations?

*      *      *

The situation was the same in the 2016 general elections, but perhaps the Comelec was swamped at the time. All positions from the president down were at stake; the administration standard bearer looked headed irreversibly (as indicated in the surveys) toward defeat, and the only son and namesake of dictator Ferdinand Marcos seemed poised to win the second highest post in the land.

Yes, there was a lot on the plate of the Comelec in the 2016 elections; campaign materials displayed illegally were the least of its problems. But now the upcoming polls are just midterm elections, and the Comelec is again looking inutile.

The inability to enforce basic election rules is one of the causes of the chronic dysfunction in our democracy. Our elections simply become disappointing exercises in reaffirming the rotten status quo.

There are amusing moments in the current campaign, as seen in the posters. In San Juan, for example, Francis Zamora and current Vice Mayor Janella Ejercito Estrada both display posters showing them with their hands being raised by President Duterte. Both claim to be Digong’s candidate.

That looks like Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s endorsement of former Leyte congressman Martin Romualdez as the next House speaker … and also Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco and… Will she also endorse the bid of Antonio Floirendo, nemesis of the man whose ouster as speaker, Pantaleon Alvarez, was widely seen as her handiwork?

There are many jokes (partisans stress the stories are true) about the race for mayor of Manila, mostly centering on which candidate has the more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s.

Across the country, however, campaigns can get dirty and deadly, and there is little to laugh about.

*      *      *

In one region of Luzon, there’s a growing buzz about local government executives being given millions each (P20 million has been mentioned) to ensure that a senatorial candidate will emerge at the top of the race.

What happens if the local officials fail to deliver? Retaliation can be expected, and it can take many forms.

Some of the officials will likely pocket much of the money for themselves, but part of it will have to be distributed to political leaders at the grassroots and to voters.

It can be argued that voters can accept money and other gifts from candidates but still make independent choices, so vote-buying can be a waste of funds.

Election results, however, can be checked by the winners, and they can retaliate. Even in Metro Manila, for example, there are streets that have been left in disrepair because the election results showed that the residents in that particular area went against the winner.

Many people can shrug off such forms of retaliation, even if these cause them inconvenience, as long as they are able to express their sentiments through the polls. But others prefer to give vote buyers their money’s worth – and the promised benefits in case of victory. Still others are left with little choice if they sell their votes: armed retaliation is a real possibility in several areas if the votes are not delivered.

Politicians who resort to vote-buying cannot be trusted to deliver honest governance. But many of them have won all over the country, and they may even be the rule rather than the exception. And there are people who see the vote-buying as an acceptable form of redistribution of wealth.

The need to reaffirm one’s mandate every three years may be good as a democratic exercise, but it can simply validate flawed governance.

This need for votes (apart from the law decriminalizing squatting) has allowed slums to proliferate even along flood high-risk areas such as riverbanks. Often, barangay officials, who are tasked by law to prevent squatting, are the landlords themselves and political overlords in the informal settlements, promising the squatters’ votes to mayors and other local government officials.

Barangay officials, who are barred by law from partisan activities in the upcoming elections, blatantly ignore the prohibition, acting as the grassroots leaders of candidates. This is another area where the Comelec has been largely powerless.

Because mayors use barangay officials as political leaders, most village chiefs are free to do as they please. In Manila, for example, the city government has ignored complaints about unregulated parking fees that are openly pocketed by barangay and city hall personnel, with the exorbitant amounts imposed at whim and collected without receipts, therefore freeing the funds from government auditing.

Elections can be overrated in countries with weak democratic institutions. In too many areas in our country, elections simply become a transfer of entitlements from one thief to another.

Even the Comelec can’t do much about this.

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